I never met Pat Conroy, but he was a frequent companion at our family dinner table. Since his death last week, everyone who knew him has talked a lot about his generosity, his sense of fun, his menschiness. I knew him as a cook.
Writers’ cookbooks are often interesting windows into their psyches—see Maya Angelou’s Hallelujah! The Welcome Table for a lovely example, or Roald Dahl’s Cookbook for a predictably terrifying one. The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories of My Life is one of the very best of the genre. “This book is the story of my life as it relates to the subject of food,” he wrote in the introduction. “It is my autobiography in food and meals and restaurants and countries far and near.” Accordingly, there are chapters beginning with tales of Rome and Paris, of Bangkok and the high seas. And always, always, the Lowcountry. South Carolina is the heart and soul of the memoir, and of the food.
But it’s also just a really good cookbook. Conroy could cook—he taught himself classic French cuisine out of Escoffier—and the recipes show it. As befits the wide-ranging nature of his biography, the dishes come from far and wide, different periods in the author’s life and different traditions. But all are characterized by his knowledge and his know-how, and there’s a sensibility—as well as a clarity—that links them harmoniously. He clearly loved to eat just as much as he loved to cook: a rarer quality than one might think in a cookbook author.
His seafood recipes, maybe not surprisingly, are especially strong. That’s what pulled my mom in. I don’t think she’d ever read a Pat Conroy novel when she found the cookbook at the library. Ultimately she found it so compelling and useful that she bought her own copy, and she’s inspired me to do the same. She often uses a Gullah baked-fish preparation that Conroy learned about while teaching on Daufuskie Island. As expected, it’s straightforward, comforting but not unchallenging, and very good. In Conroy’s memory, I’ve reproduced it below.
Note: My mom likes this with bluefish or mackerel (although it’s a good method for most fish), and she often mixes fresh herbs into the sauce. I’ve also seen her add a slice of good summer tomato on top. She and I both use cast-iron skillets for cooking.
- 6 fresh fish filets
- 1 medium purple onion, diced
- 1⁄2 cup mayonnaise
- 2 t Dijon mustard
- 1 t lemon juice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Rinse and pat the fish filets dry [Important!] and place in oiled baking dish.
Mix diced onion, mayonnaise, mustard, and lemon juice. Spread over fish filets and sprinkle with paprika. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Finish cooking under broiler till the top is bubbly and starts to turn brown or until the fish flakes easily when tested with a fork.